Weird Norfolk: The supernatural sword of Winfarthing which helped women get rid of their bad husbands

Saint Mary's Church at Winfarthing

St Mary's Church at Winfarthing was once said to contain a magical sword. - Credit: Ian Robertson/

A legend in Winfarthing claims there was a duel between two knights who were fighting over the same woman: one knight killed the other and, fearing retribution, sought sanctuary in St Mary’s Church. He may well have claimed Benefit of Clergy, a provision by which clergymen could claim they were outside the jurisdiction of the secular courts and be tried in a religious court under different laws.

Under Edward III, the Benefit of Clergy was officially extended to anyone who could read and is how English dramatist Ben Johnson avoided hanging in 1598 when charged with manslaughter and two soldiers in the 1770 Boston Massacre were spared execution.

In an ecclesiastical court, the most common form of trial was by compurgation which involved the defendant swearing his innocence and finding 12 others to swear they were telling the truth at which point they would be acquitted.

The knight of Winfarthing lived to fight another day but left his sword - the murder weapon - in the church where it became a relic and was said to boast supernatural powers.

Thomas Becon, writing in 1563 spoke of ‘The Good Sword of Winfarthing’, a precious relic which would be visited by pilgrims who would leave offerings, bow to the sword and kiss it.

Becon has born near Thetford around 15 miles away from Winfarthing and heard the tale of the magical sword from a young age.

“The sword was visited far and near for many sundry purposes,” he wrote, “but specially for things that were lost and for horses that were either stolen or run astray.

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“It also helped with the shortening of a married man’s life, if that the wife was weary of her husband…”

‘Weary wives’, it was said, could set a candle before the sword every Sunday for a year – missing not even one – and the situation would be dealt with. This fascinating folk magic was sometimes linked to St Uncumber, the patron saint of women who wished to be freed from abusive husbands and whose own commitment to avoiding marriage to a pagan kind saw her grow a beard overnight to repel him.

Becon’s account of the magical sword in St Mary’s chapel is the only one which remains, and links the sword to a thief who hid in the church rather than a knight, but there is a suggestion that the rebuilding of the church in the 14th century was financed by pilgrims.

All that remains of the sword today, which disappeared after the Reformation, is a stained glass window which illustrates the legend in memory of Alfred and Frederick Cole, erected by Sydney John Cole in 1957.

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